When it comes to space missions, Raymond Francis has been there and has the cool NASA T-shirts to prove it. But it doesn’t mean launches and landings aren’t still exciting for the Western alumnus. As an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Francis has a front row seat, and a big role to play, when the Perseverance rover touches down on Mars on Thursday, February 18.
“I’ve been very fortunate to work on such exciting projects. And it’s still exciting,” said Francis, PhD’14, who serves as an engineer on NASA’s science operations team. “Even if you operate planetary missions on a daily basis, a Mars landing isn’t an everyday event.”
Francis’ first operations shift for Perseverance begins after the rover lands on Mars but he says he’ll be watching with bated breath Thursday with the rest of the world when the red dust settles.
“My first operations shift for Perseverance begins the evening after it’s landed,” said Francis. “But I’ll be sure to be awake in the morning to see the landing live – who would want to miss that?”
Launched in July 2020, Perseverance will land in Jezero crater and for the first time, a space rover is tasked with physically collecting rock and soil samples from Mars, which will be sealed and stored for possible return to Earth.
For most of the past 12 months, Francis and the rest of his NASA teammates have practiced operating the rover on the surface, testing procedures, equipment, and personnel. Starting Thursday night, he will be coordinating the science team’s daily and weekly plans and operating the SuperCam instrument, which is a suite of remote-sensing tools for studying the rocks and other materials around the rover.
“Prior to launch, I was responsible for a training program for the mission’s science team on how to use the new rover and its instruments to explore the rover’s landing site,” said Francis. “We ran a series of mission simulations using data from analogue environments to give the team the highest-fidelity experience possible to what they will have to do on Mars.”
While he was a PhD student, Francis earned his patch on Western-led analogue missions.Funded largely by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the missions gave him a great deal of experience in highly realistic mission planning.
“The software tools and the team organization are different, but the fundamental problems and questions – what are our exploration goals, how do we use a rover and its instruments to answer them, how do we command a robotic system remotely in unknown terrain – are the same as for real missions,” said Francis.
In fact, one of those analogue missions was where Francis met John Moores, then a Western adjunct professor, who was applying for a participating scientist role on the Curiosity rover mission and needed a graduate student who could develop image-processing algorithms for his atmospheric science. Moores was successful and as a result, so was Francis.
“Analogue missions in a very real sense led directly to me joining Curiosity’s science team. But once I was at JPL, and my experience with analogue field tests became known, I was approached by the science leadership on the Mars 2020 mission to help them develop the series of training exercises we used for that mission’s science team,” said Francis. “Much of the design of Mars 2020’s exercises draws on my experience with Western-led lunar and Mars exploration analogue missions.”
When Francis was studying at Western, he also won a NASA Group Achievement Award for his work operating the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars from his lab at Western.
Even without the award and recognition from NASA, Gordon (Oz) Osinski, director of Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration, always knew Francis had the right stuff.
“I still remember to this day my earliest conversations with Raymond, even prior to choosing Western for his PhD. His biggest aspiration was to work in mission operations for planetary exploration missions after his PhD and a goal of coming to Western was to conduct interdisciplinary research that bridged engineering with geology and, we did exactly that,” said Osinski.
Francis was co-supervised at Western by Osinski, a planetary scientist in the Faculty of Science and Ken McIsaac, an electrical engineer in the Faculty of Engineering. Without a doubt, this interdisciplinary approach to his studies put him in good stead for working at NASA.
“Space exploration, with missions like Perseverance, requires a great range of expertise – roboticists, computer scientists, mechanical and electrical engineers, geologists, geochemists, atmospheric scientists and more. These people have to work smoothly together, and it’s often helpful to have a few people who cross the boundaries of two or more of those disciplines – a lesson I learned on my early space work at the European Space Agency, where I was often an interface between scientists and the industrial contractors who were building their instruments,” said Francis.
“Western offered me the chance to work jointly with professors in engineering and in planetary science, which is a rare combination, surprisingly. I thought having both would be useful for working on planetary missions afterward, and it turns out that was a good guess.”
If Francis has proven one thing, even his guesses are highly calculated. And that’s important when Perseverance starts roving the red planet on Thursday.
The new Mars landing site, Jezero crater, and Curiosity’s site, Gale crater, are both large, billions-of-years-old impact craters which in ancient times contained lakes. But while Gale has a large mountain of sedimentary rocks in the middle, Jezero contains the remains of a complex delta formed by a river which once flowed into it.
“Jezero is much more hazardous terrain for the landing – JPL had to develop new intelligent guidance software to allow the rover to safely land there but Curiosity taught us a lot of things. We learned how to operate a large, and very complex, radioisotope-powered rover over the course of years, and how to do science while driving quickly,” said Francis.
Osinski says supervising graduate students at Western is very rewarding, especially seeing them go on to do amazing things like Francis with Perseverance.
“Seeing Raymond playing such an important role in the Mars 2020 mission is, quite simply, inspirational,” said Osinski. “Raymond is an amazing role model for current and future Western students and he is a great example of what happens when you follow your dreams.”